Kazakhstan: Persecuted Activists Speak Out

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It is clear that a wave of arrests and repression against left and social movement activists in Kazakhstan is gathering pace.

Following the arrest and sentencing to 15 days in prison of Ainur Kurmanov last week, the last few days has seen the refusal of printshops to print, and the blocking of web sites run by, the newspapers “Respublika” and “Golos respubliki”.

Pressure has been stepped up on activists of the “Defend Peoples’ Homes”, in particular, Dmitrii Burminskii in Chimkent in the South of Kazakhstan and Vadim Kuramshin, in Petropavlovsk in North Kazakhstan who has only just finished a sentence of over 3 years in prison (see interview below) and has now been rearrested. According to his parole officer, this is because he was recently in Almaty, where he participated in a conference of Socialist Resistance (CWI in Kazakhstan) and has been particularly active on the internet! In the mining city of Karaganda police have been surrounding the home of left activist, Andrei Tsukanov.

This stepping up of repression is meeting resistance not only internationally but in the CIS and Kazakhstan itself. A picket of the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow has taken place. Protests and support has been piling in from all over the country and all over the world. A protest was held demanding Ainur’s release outside the Central Court in Almaty. After unfolding placards and reading out the numerous letters of support and protest from all over the world, two activists of Socialist Resistance, Alken Kenzhebaev and Dmitrii Tikhonov were arrested. After being held for five hours, they were dragged before the Court where, to everyone’s surprise, they were let off with a warning.

Yesenbek Ukteshbaev, Chair of the Strike Committee of the Almatinskii Train Wagon Repair Factory (see interview below), is in court today in connection with the organisation of the May Day demonstration in the city. Protests need to be stepped up (See separate article).

Fight to the finish!

Workers’ leaders speak about lives of struggle in Kazakhstan

Carried here are two interviews made by Peter Taaffe – Secretary of the Socialist Party England and Wales and member of the CWI’s International Secretariat – on a recent visit to Kazakhstan. One is with Esen Ukteshbaev and the other with Vadim Kuramshin. Both are important activists in the workers’ movement and participants in ‘Kazakhstan 2012’, the workers’ and popular opposition party attempting to stand against Nazarbayev in the 2012 Kazakhstan elections. As mentioned above, both are again being hounded by the regime.

Interview with Yesenbek Ukteshbaev

Yesen is the Joint Chair of the Strike Committee of the YRYSTY Almatinskii Train Wagon Repair Factory in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where workers took part in a two month strike last summer with the demand to nationalise the factory under workers’ control. He gave this interview:

Peter Taaffe: Yesen, can you tell our readers about the long campaign you conducted in your factory, which resulted in your victimisation?

Yesen: I worked in the factory, a plant of 2,000 workers, one of the most important in Kazakhstan, which repairs train wagons for the whole of Kazakhstan and Central Asia. I am an engineer and I was in charge of the standardisation. I was responsible for the introduction of the quality management system in the factory and this gave me, as head auditor, access to many documents in the factory. It became clear to me and my fellow workers that the plant was being prepared intentionally for bankruptcy.

From this I drew the conclusion of the need to organise a very effective ‘strike’ against the corruption which resulted from the privatisation of the plant in 2005, and the plans of management to asset strip, close it down completely and sell it off.

My inside knowledge of how management had behaved and what they intended helped us to prepare. Two local kindergartens connected with the factory were closed, plus a youth camp in the mountains. We began to move into opposition to management and contacted others in Kazakhstan – particularly Ainur and the Committee for a Workers’ International – to organise opposition. We drew up a report and wrote to the prime minister, to the president of the KNB (the Kazakhstan secret service), to the State Prosecutor and the Tax Police, but no action was taken.

Our strike was not a ‘typical’ strike, more a protest of occupation or semi-occupation in a titanic struggle with management to defend workers’ rights, conditions and the integrity of the plant. The issue that provoked our action arose from the massive breaches of the labour rights laws by management and private owners. Once we took action, that forced the state authorities such as the Labour inspectorate, audit committee and KNB to start an enquiry, a “complex investigation” in their terminology. Of course they tried to cover everything up but because we were watching over them they came up with a 72 page report of breaches.

This plant was privatised in 2005 even though it had been designated as a strategically important factory, which according to the law should have stayed in state hands. There was no right of the new owners to proceed in the way that they did, just stripping the plant down and selling it off, they were just interested in getting their hands on the valuable land under the factory. In fact, according to the law on privatisation, the first offer to take over the factory should have been made to the workforce, but this was ignored, they just announced to us who the new owner would be.

Managers were sacked in the technical departments who had worked there for 40 years. The new owners brought in their own people, ‘key specialists’, and began to pay them exorbitant wages – far higher than we, the workers in the factory, were getting. The management and their stooges were also selling off the resources of the factory, for instance copper was sold ‘on the side’ as ‘scrap’.

Peter: How did the workers view the situation in general?

Yesen: They were incensed because wages had been reduced by half and when we did get our wages, they were two or three months late. Sometimes workers would be laid off “on holiday” but with no holiday pay. It was the brutality of it all that angered me. Workers did not get enough for food while the bosses were building saunas on the premises for themselves!

Peter: How did this compare to pervious times, particularly when Kazakhstan was a planned economy, albeit with a corrupt heavy-handed bureaucracy?

Yesen: Well we had good facilities in a sense; the social network, kindergartens, youth camps, etc. Now workers are forced to bring in lunch for themselves where it was previously supplied by the factory canteen. More and more, the plant was in hock to the banks and management was buying expensive flats for themselves.

By the way, I was in possession of an order from the government in 1994 that for ten years this factory was of such strategic importance it should not be privatised. At one stage, 3,000 workers were employed in the factory, which was one of the biggest in Central Asia. It was a repair factory that served the whole region, not just Kazakhstan. Now, with the plundering that was taking place by the management, and the increased costs of supplies – a result of the cronyism of the management with the suppliers – the cost of jobs was five times more expensive than before.

It took a while for us to prepare the reports and we acquired secret documents which took us three months to get hold of. When we were ready, we began to organise, in effect underground strike committees, which met outside the factory. There were ten people to begin with. Unfortunately, somebody passed information to the management but management never came near us as leading up to the main confrontation. There were a number of occasions when strikes took place with the TV and the government supporting the management.

Under the old regime we had 24 days paid holiday, canteens and special food. After privatisation, holidays were cut to 14 days but, in effect, we had no holiday because we could not afford them. Those in control of the plant were deliberately running it down.

We estimated it was about one month from bankruptcy, therefore we had to act because we did not really have a massive campaign to prepare the workers; we did not tell the press in general although a number of journalists did know that a strike or a conflict was brewing. But we demanded a meeting with management and they did not know what to expect. We pulled all the workers into the main area for a general meeting of the workforce. We read out documentation. Workers were so angry at the state of the factory that if Nazarbeayev – the president – himself had been there, he would have been torn limb from limb.

The press was then allowed in and we elected strike committees, which included middle management and white-collar workers who were supporting us. The management barricaded themselves in their offices. We composed a letter and sent it to the management and the government; every worker signed this statement. Our main demands were:

  1. Review privatisation and what it has meant for the factory and the workers.
  2. Nationalisation of this factory immediately.
  3. A system of workers’ control.

In the discussions that we had, our bottom line – our minimum, so to speak – was nationalisation of the plant. It was a do-or-die situation for us because if we had not have acted, the whole plant would have closed and that would have been a blow to Kazakhstan and the whole region, particularly the working people. This plant was so successful that even the world economic crisis had not undermined its production. We therefore gave the government a week to form a commission to discuss with us an act or we would take events into our own hands. The date for this was 30 June, 2009.

The predictable reaction of the management– backed by the government – was that we could not strike but they were prepared to have a ‘dialogue’. This took the form of inviting three or four representatives of the action committee to meetings at different times during the day. Also, the threat of action by the workers – miraculously – literally the day after the mass meeting – money and resources began to appear. Now workers were paid wages in advance! By the end of the dispute all our health and safety demands were met, wages were paid up. But they did not concede our general demands – on nationalisation, etc. – and it was quite clear that they wanted to get rid of the organisers, particularly myself.

Peter: What was the attitude of the ‘official’ trade unions during the dispute?

Yesen: We had no confidence in the official trade unions. In fact, we wanted the union as such to be in the hands of the members. Under law, the management has no right to sack elected trade union officials. But this management did. We therefore organised in each department elected delegates – separate from the official trade union structure. I went around and below and organised the campaign.

Peter: Were you attacked or harassed?

Yesen: Yes definitely. We were ‘invited’ into the state prosecutor’s office and told to stop organising in the factory. We were interviewed by the KNB and kept for five and a half hours. There was a consistent campaign of harassment and I was getting no sleep so I dozed off at one moment and was threatened with the sack.

Peter: What was the culmination of this battle?

Yesen: Well management – obviously in collaboration with the government – bought time by delaying negotiations, dragging them out with different groups of workers. They undermined the strike committee by sending me to a meeting in Moscow. If I had refused to go, they would have sacked me on the spot. They then organised a special ‘trade union conference’ to try and resolve the dispute. The workforce overwhelmingly wanted me – and I was proposed – to become the president of the unions. I did not want to let them down but everything was done to keep me out of the conference. I was suspended, in effect, at this time. But when I was informed the conference was taking place, I came into the factory and visited the depots. They actually threatened to kick me out of the factory and two guards followed me around, so I called a press conference, got support from Ainur and what is now Kazakhstan 2012.

At the factory conference – which began at 3pm with only about 200 present – they dragged out the proceedings but the meeting was overwhelmingly on my side. After a number of harassments of me and our supporters, I was sacked on 1 September. The campaign against the workforce did have an effect as many workers were frightened of losing their jobs in a situation of mass unemployment. However, 30 resigned and management was also brutal in the reprisals they took, including sacking members of my family.

Peter: How do you see the situation now in the factory and in Kazakhstan, Yesin?

Yesen: We said at the time we were sacked that ‘we will be back’ and we will. The Nazarbayev regime is responsible for the brutal management and the anti-worker mood in the factory but we must fight back, both in the workplace and by providing a political alternative, the basis of which is Kazakhstan 2012.

Peter: Would you like to say anything to our readers?

Yesen: We value the support of the CWI and call for all workers throughout the world to support the struggles of their brothers and sisters in Kazakhstan.

Interview with Vadim Kuramshin

Peter Taaffe: Vadim, you were jailed by Nazarbayev’s courts. Could you tell our readers what for?

Vadim: It is true that I was given a three-year prison sentence on 26 March 2006 under Article 129 of the Kazakhstan Criminal Code for an alleged ‘libel’.

Peter: What was the content of this ‘libel’?

Vadim: It was because I told the truth in a full-page article in a broadsheet newspaper about the dishonest behaviour, shameful robbery, of Kazakhstan citizens who were working on the land. I was sentenced for using one word: ‘manipulation’. I accused the authorities, together with the managers of ‘manipulating’ many things to the detriment of the workers.

Peter: Could you just briefly outline the background to your imprisonment?

Vadim: I was approached – as a well-known human rights lawyer – to help workers on the land in a dispute they had with the management of a privatised former collective farm. The property had been divided amongst former agricultural workers at the time of the decollectivisation of agriculture in Kazakhstan. The labourers had decided to form a kind of co-operative and applied for legal recognition from the authorities, which was granted.

When they tried to register the cooperative, they were told (wrongly) that they needed a “qualified director” and as the workers did not have anyone “qualified” they were told they should appoint one of the members of the ‘clan’ – a kind of ‘extended family’ which operates in Kazakhstan. But over ten years – from 1996 to 2006 – workers were getting poorer and poorer, and the director, naturally, was getting richer. The workers found out that he and his friends in the clan had bought expensive flats. He was therefore challenged and it was discovered that there were documents ratifying all kinds of purchases at the expense of the workers, which were criminal in character. The workers therefore decided to try and get rid of him, and had even approached a lawyer before me. This lawyer, however, said to the workers that ‘it would be mad to fight this’. Naïvely, the workers asked why, and he said, ‘Look who you are fighting!’

Peter: What did he mean by this?

Vadim: Well it was obvious to the workers that they were not just fighting this ‘clan’ but it had powerful friends, both in the local government and in the national government itself around the Nazarbayev regime.

Peter: How did you get involved?

Vadim: I was a human rights lawyer and, at that stage, I was in a kind of social-democratic opposition party, involved in challenging the big oil companies. I was approached, saw the documents and it was quite clear that the management had acted illegally and that they should be prosecuted for this and other criminal behaviour. We contacted the ‘financial police’ who are supposed to be obliged to take up cases like this. But for three months, nothing happened. They tried to frighten me and the workforce with threats. I was then beaten up by the police, which is quite common in Kazakhstan, as was shown by the recent beating of Ainur when he was imprisoned.

This did not dissuade me and I involved myself even more in the campaign in defence of the workers. We conducted a political campaign that involved hiring a bus, which we took to Petropavlovsk, the city where the authorities were located. When we reached the edge of the city, the city police – by that I mean the whole of the police – were waiting for us. The governor of the region, who we were lobbying, was linked to the management of this ex-collective farm. The police were implacable and, in fact, began to arrest women, with one woman breaking through and actually punching a policeman.

The governor, after this, agreed to meet us and promised: ‘I’ll sort everything out.’ We insisted on a discussion there and then. We pointed out that the regional governor had been wrong and that the workers wanted action. There was no legal document enshrining what had happened on this ex-collective and we therefore demanded the sacking of the current director – including his brother, who was involved.

Two weeks later, officials from the audit department confirmed the illegality of what had taken place. The ‘financial police’ ignored this – obviously under the orders of the Nazarbayev regime, who were connected to people involved in this criminal conspiracy against the workers. They then started to accuse the workers and me of having no evidence and, moreover, we were ‘against the president’. They then chose the one word in the article mentioned earlier – ‘manipulation’ – to drag me before the courts.

The laws of libel in Kazakhstan are incredible by the standards of anywhere else. The judge was completely in the pocket of the regime – which is again common in Kazakhstan – and their puppets in this particular case. There is absolutely no other case in Kazakhstan similar to the one that I went through with a similar charge of ‘libel’ on an issue like this. This, moreover, was carried through with no financial audit. I was therefore sentenced by a stooge court and judge, and then dragged off to prison for three years and eight months.

Peter: What was your reaction to the imprisonment?

Vadim: I naturally felt a great sense of injustice but did not expect the horrors to come. My own mother was not allowed to see me, having travelled hundreds or thousands of kilometres. She held her own protest against the injustice to me – outside the prison in freezing temperatures for two days. I was not allowed letters to my son.

Peter: What was your experience of prison like?

Vadim: I do not wish anybody to go through what I went through. I was morally and physically tortured by the guards. I was regularly beaten, with my arms pinned to a radiator. On one occasion, my trousers were pulled down and they inserted a wooden truncheon into my anus. I was put in a cell with a temperature of -39ºC for three months. I received no phone calls or any ‘concessions’ whatsoever. On the other hand, my refusal to kowtow to the guards and succumb to the pressure raised my standing in the eyes of the younger prisoners, who actually went on hunger strike in my defence.

I witnessed in the prison people who had murdered not once but several times treated more favourably than me. Many of them were released from prison while I rotted away in my cell. I actually received injections of drugs from them in order to keep me docile.

I was not allowed to write to my mother or my girlfriend until I had given an assurance of good behaviour. I had been turned down for release on three different occasions when I appeared before the prison board. Eventually, a political appointee – connected to the Nazarbayev regime – was on the panel. She asked me if I was released, ‘will you be political?’ naturally, I answered in the negative otherwise I would still be in prison.

Peter: What is your attitude now?

Vadim: I intend to continue the struggle. I want redress. The capitalist ‘opposition’ in Kazakhstan was not interested in my case and it was only Ainur and the comrades of Kazakhstan 2012 who have taken it up.

Peter: Do you still intend to be part of the opposition to the Nazarbayev regime?

Vadim: Yes. What have I got to lose? Because I came to the defence of workers, I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost my car, I lost three years of my life to inhumane treatment. I intend to fight until the conditions that led to this are eradicated. I also appeal to all in the West to support me in my struggle for redress against the Nazarbayev government, the criminals in this factory who conspired to have me imprisoned. In this way, you will be helping the general struggle for democratic rights for the peoples of Kazakhstan.

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